When she left Pennsylvania’s coal mining region for a secretarial job in the shadows of the Delaware Memorial Bridge, June Eisley’s life would change. She just didn’t know how much.
Eisley was 28, a single mother with a son ready to start school, when she started working at the old Atlas Powder complex, later ICI Americas, and took an apartment at Fifth Street and Greenhill Avenue in Wilmington.
“I was a Republican. Up there, you were what your parents were,” she says.
She remembers the reaction in Tamaqua after the assassination of President Kennedy. “I was in a daze, but people didn’t seem to be upset. There wasn’t anybody talking about it.”
When she got to Wilmington and started making friends, she learned that virtually all of them were Democrats. Then, she says, “I realized that’s what I should have been all along.”
She slowly got involved in politics and attended West Presbyterian Church at Eighth and Washington streets, in the West Center City neighborhood occupied by the National Guard following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who she considers “the greatest leader this country has ever had.” West Presbyterian’s pastor was a liberal activist, the Rev. Tom Luce, “a big influence on my thinking,” she says.
Throughout the occupation, Eisley attended church regularly. “I just went, same as I do now,” she says matter of factly. Then, two months after King’s assassination, she joined the crowd of mourners as the train carrying the body of Robert F. Kennedy passed through. “There was such a void. It was horrible,” she says.
“I was brought up patriotic, believing everything I was told,” Eisley says. Then, in 1968, she read a booklet on Vietnam by University of Delaware professor William Boyer, “who told what really happened there.”
Boyer’s booklet so inspired her that she got three friends together and started a group, Mothers United for Peace, modeled after a California group, Another Mother for Peace, that was known for creating the slogan, “War is not healthy for children and other living things.”
The idea, she says, was “to have suburban middle-class women fighting against the war, instead of the long-haired hippies.”
The organization caught on, growing to a membership of about 130 women, a significant number in those pre-computer, pre-Internet days. “Everything was done by phone,” she says. “It took over my life. I’ve been a nonstop peace activist ever since.”
In the mid-1970s, after the Vietnam War had ended, Eisley shifted gears and organized what would become the Coalition for Nuclear Power Postponement, an organization that fought Delmarva Power’s plans to build a nuclear power plant just south of the C&D Canal. Her good friend, Frieda Berryhill, took over leadership of the group, whose mission was ultimately achieved. The nuclear plant was never built. Some of the land Delmarva acquired as it made its plans is now being developed as a mixed-use community called the Town of Whitehall.
Then came protests against U.S. intervention in uprisings in El Salvador and Nicaragua, and Eisley continued her protests during the first Iraq war. She was arrested 10 times for participating in nonviolent civil disturbances at the Pentagon, the Senate Office Building and outside the Federal Building in Wilmington. “You get a citation. You go to trial. They let us go after paying a fine, and you’re not allowed to show your face in Washington, D.C., at a protest for a while,” she says.
In September 2015, as gun violence in Wilmington continued to escalate, she joined a group called the Campaign for Nonviolence and organized a “march for the culture of peace.” From that she joined the Wilmington Peacekeepers, a group that visits areas where shootings have occurred to offer comfort and support to neighborhood residents.
Throughout her involvement in these causes, Eisley has been a member of Pacem in Terris, the Wilmington-based peace group, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. “I wasn’t there at the start, and I was supposed to have retired a couple of years ago, but they gave me a plaque at their annual dinner.”
Being part of the larger group has helped her maintain the contacts needed to move her causes forward.
Having turned 80 in May, Eisley has slowed down a bit, but isn’t quite ready to quit. “I’ve been doing this 48, 49 years.” Like Pacem in Terris, she is planning on going for 50.